Understand the Basics or Lose

Technology changes. Tools change. The social landscape changes. Human nature does not change.

- Felix Dennis

There are basic human traits that have not changed for tens of thousands of years. Our tools and methods have evolved but the roots of our actions remain the same.  Every year students are graduating from universities with all sorts of knowledge, yet many of the people I meet and interview, don't have a clue about what really matters in the world. 

What counts in the real world isn't your knowledge or a specific skill set - let's just get that out of the way. There is always someone who's as good or better than you at a given task. Yes, being good is important, but that's not enough to get you beyond mediocre. It never has been. The only way to ever make an impact in this world is to understand human nature and learn how to lead people. 

If you can't learn how to move people, even in the simplest of situations, you don't have a chance of winning, whatever that means to you.  It's that simple. Master the basics or learn to accept a life of mediocrity. 

Bruce Lee was the Fucking Man Part 1

For those who don't know, Bruce Lee was an Asian-American martial artist and actor. He died in 1973 at the age of 33 right before the release of the film that cemented his legend, Enter the Dragon. He considered himself an "artist of life" and focused on cultivating all areas of his life. He came of age in a time when Americans were not particularly friendly to Asians and coming from nothing, became and international icon. He trained people from all walks of life from college friends to famous actors like Steve McQueen.  He was just an amazingly dynamic human being which is why his likeness is still being used all over the place from video games to car commercials. I obviously never met the man, but his example and his writings have had a huge impact on my life.

One of my favorite books of all time is his Tao of Jeet Kune Do. I picked it up when I was about 12 years old and it truly changed me. Before I bought it, I was a chubby kid going through the most awkward phase of my life just looking for a way to grow up faster. 

I don't think I appreciated the full depth of the book at 12, but I understood the sections on daily exercise and the basic philosophy behind his art form and I ran with it. I started exercising every day between 6th and 7th grade while also going through a major growth spurt. When I came back to school, people literally didn't recognize me. 

The physical benefits of following Lee's protocols were great, but going through the process is what stuck with me. The idea of consciously transforming yourself and putting in the work so that your actions can be executed unconsciously was profound to me. 

I've read and re-read this book many times over the years, here are my favorite quotes from the book.

  • Art reaches its greatest peak when devoid of self-consciousness. Freedom discovers man the moment he loses concern over what impression he is making or about to make.

  • Eliminate "not clear" thinking and function from your root.

  • Art calls for complete mastery of techniques, developed by reflection within the soul.

  • The great mistake is to anticipate the outcome of the engagement; you ought not to be thinking of whether it ends in victory or in defeat. Let nature take its course, and your tools will strike at the right moment.

  • When there is freedom from mechanical conditioning, there is simplicity. Life is a relationship to the whole.

  • Understanding oneself happens through a process of relationships and not through isolation.

  • If emotional control is not well-learned, critical moments in the fight when the emotional tension is highest will result in loss of skill by the fighter. His muscles suddenly must work against his own over-tense antagonistic muscles. He becomes stiff and clumsy in his movements. Expose yourself to various conditions and learn.

  • Experience shows that an athlete who forces himself to the limit can keep going as long as necessary. This means that ordinary effort will not tap or release the tremendous store of reserve power latent in the human body. Extraordinary effort, highly emotionalized conditions or a true determination to win at all costs will release this extra energy.  Therefore, an athlete is actually as tired as he feels and, if he is determined to win, he can keep on almost indefinitely to achieve his objective. The attitude, "You can win if you want to badly enough," means that the will to win is constant. No amount of punishment, no amount of effort, no condition is too "tough" to take in order to win. Such an attitude can be developed only if winning is closely tied to the practitioner's ideals and dreams.

  • A practitioner must learn to perform at top speed all the time, not to coast with the idea that he can "open up" when the time comes. The real competitor is the one who gives all he has, all the time. The result is that he works close to his capacity at all times and in so doing, forms an attitude of giving all he has. In order to create such an attitude, the practitioner must be driven longer, harder, and faster than normally would be required.

  • Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I'd studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick is just a kick.

  • Intelligence is sometimes defined as the capacity of the individual to adjust himself successfully to his environment - or to adjust the environment to his needs.

  • The more aware you become, the more you shed from day to day what you have learned so that your mind is always fresh and uncontaminated by previous conditioning.

  • So, we acquire a sense of worth either by realizing our talents, or by keeping busy or by identifying ourselves with something apart from us - be it a cause, a leader, a group, possessions or whatnot. The path of self-realization is the most difficult. It is taken only when other avenues to a sense of worth are more or less blocked. Men of talent have to be encouraged and goaded to engage in creative work. Their groans and laments echo through the ages.

  • We are told that talent creates its own opportunities. Yet, it sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents as well.

  • If it is true, as Napoleon wrote to Carnot, "The art of government is not to let men grow stale," then, it is an art of unbalancing. The crucial difference between a totalitarian regime and a free social order, is perhaps, in the methods of unbalancing by which their people are kept active and striving.

Trouble in Mind: What to do About Racism in the 21st Century

After the recent grand jury verdicts in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island and the subsequent protests, all I feel is anger and frustration. Anger at the fact that people lose their lives for no good reason, which is a tragedy. Frustration from the response of people who think laying on the ground and blocking traffic will do something to change the justice system and the subtle racism that pervades our culture.  

In 2014, anyone who wants to improve the racial dynamics in America are playing a different game than the men and women who led the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Courageous leaders like Martin Luther King Jr were leading movements protesting a physically segregated and violent America. It was the first time since emancipation that people stood up and said "We've had enough." Today, we need courage and leadership, but we need different strategies. But before getting into that,  it's important to look back and understand how we got here.

After slavery ended and Reconstruction fell apart, we entered the Jim Crow era - possibly the worst time for black Americans in this country. The deeply troubling book Trouble in Mind covers this period in depth. Leon Litwack writes: 

When black Southerners in 1865 staked out their claims to becoming a free people, they projected a very different vision of the future. They aspired to a better life than they had known, to a life once thought impossible to contemplate. They wanted what they had seen whites enjoy - the vote, schools, churches, legal marriages, judicial equity, and the chance to not only work on their own plots of land but to retain the rewards of their laboring. During Reconstruction, they seized the opportunity to make these goals a reality, to reorder the post-bellum South. It was a time of unparalleled hope, laden with possibility, when black men and women acted to shape their own destiny.

He goes on to describe what ended Reconstruction and how Jim Crow "ruled" at the turn of the 20th century:

Neither military defeat nor the end of slavery suggested to whites the need to reexamine racial relationships and assumptions. Confronting a society "suddenly turned bottom-side up," the white South responded with massive resistance...Whites employed terror, intimidation, and violence to doom Reconstruction, not because blacks had demonstrated incompetence but because they were rapidly learning the uses of political power, not because of evidence of black failure but the far more alarming evidence of black success...What the white South lost on the battlefields of the Civil War and during reconstruction, it would largely retake in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In what has been called the "nadir" of African American history, a new generation of black Southerners shared with the survivors of enslavement a sharply proscribed and deteriorating position in a South bent on commanding black lives and black labor by any means necessary. 

The Jim Crow era ranged from the late 1870's to the Great Migration when millions of African Americans left the South for northern cities. The violence of the Jim Crow era was something we can't imagine today. There was essentially no protection for blacks in the South. Beatings, Lynchings, and rape of "free" United States citizens were common place. Litwack describes the lynching of a man named Sam Hose, who was wrongly accused of rape:

Some two thousand men and women witnessed it on Sunday afternoon, April 23, 1899, near Newman, Georgia, some of them arriving from Atlanta on a special excursion train. After stripping Hose of his clothes and chaining him to a tree, the self-appointed executioners stacked kerosene-soaked wood high around him. Before saturating Hose with oil and applying the torch, they cut off his ears, fingers, and genitals, and skinned his face. While some in the crowd plunged knives into the victims flesh, others watched "with unfeigning satisfaction" (as one reporter noted) the contortions of Sam Hose's body as the flames rose, distorting his features, causing his eyes to bulge out of their sockets, and rupturing his veins. When in Hose's agony he almost managed to unloosen his bonds, the executioners quenched the flames, retied him, and applied more oil to the body before relighting the fire. "Such suffering," reported on newspaper,"has seldom been witnessed." The only sounds that came from the victim's lips, even as his blood sizzled in the fire, were "Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus!"  Before Hose's body had even cooled, his heart and liver were removed and cut into several pieces and his bones were crushed into small particles. The crowd fought over these souvenirs, and the "more fortunate possessors" made some handsome profits on the sales. (Small pieces of bones went for 25 cent, a piece of the liver "crisply cooked" sold for 10 cents). Shortly after the lynching, one of the participants reportedly left for the state capitol hoping to deliver to the governor of Georgia a slice of Sam Hose's heart. No member of this crowd wore a mask, nor did anyone attempt to conceal the names of the perpetrators. Reporters noted the active participation of some of the region's most prominent citizens in the execution.

These kind of events are what led to Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties. Between 1882 and 1959 there were an estimated 4,733 lynchings in the United States. Many more occurred that were never reported.  When people had sit-ins, and marched through the South, it was a big deal. When a quarter of a million people marched on Washington to demand the passage of civil rights legislation, it was truly the end of an era. These things had never been done before. They were shocking to many, and highly emotional for all who participated. The images from these events were broadcast on television and reproduced in countless newspapers and magazines. It was a time of radical change. And for the most part, it worked. 

Fast forward to today. While the outcomes of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner murders have sparked rage and inspired people to take to the streets, it's hard to see what change that will bring. We may see officers sporting body cameras, and maybe we'll see some more transparency in New York grand jury proceedings, but what else?

Let's be clear, racism still exists. The difference is that it's not overt. You won't see another Sam Hose and this isn't 12 Years a Slave.  You're more likely to hear the N-word in a song or from some Asian or Hispanic kid - not being used as a racial slur. With that being said, what can we do - how do you fight an enemy you feel, but can't see? You don't do it by doing what worked fifty years ago. This is a different enemy, a different game. 

Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to any of these questions. I wish I did. What I do know is that in any game you must constantly change your strategy to fit your situation if you want to win. Gandhi had the right strategy for the game he was playing, the aforementioned civil rights leaders had the winning strategy for their time. What's the winning strategy today? Time will tell, but if history has taught us anything, it's that the answer will come from patient and dedicated leaders who will adapt their strategies to fit the times.